The sure-handed acrobatics of Michigan's Desmond Howard should make next week's announcement of the Heisman winner a mere formality
The sure-handed acrobatics of Michigan's Desmond Howard should make next week's announcement of the Heisman winner a mere formality
December 09, 1991

There is magic in any ordinary act, and its essence is practice. Turn a carrot into a goldfish, pull a bird from a handkerchief, roll a coin over your fingers a thousand times until you can make it disappear. Practice—that is the innocent art of Michigan receiver Desmond (Magic) Howard.

Howard is a young man of 21 who is experiencing his first metaphysical stirrings, and you know what metaphysical stirrings can do to a young man. First he has a stirring, and the next thing you know, he is considering the true nature of magic. Then he is meditating and wearing an Egyptian ankh—the symbol of life—around his neck, and beads, and wondering whether he is more a black man than a maize and blue one, and soon there are posters of African kings on the wall of his apartment, where he lives alone (to the consternation of the Michigan coaching staff), and then he is refusing to eat beef because of its impurities and reading Malcolm X and listening to the speeches of African-American psychologist Na'im Akbar and asking, well, Why?

Frequently, the answer is, well, Because. Howard has learned this not from books or meditations or speeches, but from his father, J.D. Howard, a tool and die maker. J.D. played basketball as a youth with the Jolly Jokers, a dime-store version of the Harlem Globetrotters, in the days when good black athletes didn't always get scholarships. More often they got a trade like tool and die. Desmond was all J.D. got for company after he and his wife, Hattie, split up when Desmond was 13, and J.D. devoted the next several years to raising a son with otherworldly speed, a smile softer than your daughter's and a sure sense that there is more to life than all this.

Howard, now a joyous college junior, is a virtual shoo-in for the Heisman Trophy, which will be bestowed on Dec. 14. With 138 points, he shattered Michigan's single-season scoring record of 117, set by Tom Harmon in 1940, and if he decides to stay at Michigan for a fifth year, he will easily break the school record for career touchdowns (40), set by Anthony Carter from 1979 to '82. But the numbers do not express the style of his performances or how absolutely no one has been able to stop him. Nor do they speak to what an unusual man-child he is, a gentle tofu eater who talks to troubled youngsters, an activist who aims to get a Ph.D. in social work, a meditative loner with a vibrant laugh. There is an eloquence to Howard's play, a sense that it pleases his entire body, from his eyes to the bottoms of his cleats, to simply catch the football before 100,000 people on a Saturday afternoon.

It was J.D. who explained the true nature of magic to his son. Actually, he didn't explain it so much as live it, working overtime at the Osborn tool and die plant in inner-city Cleveland in order to send Desmond to a predominantly white, private Catholic school, where he might have a chance to earn decent college board scores and an athletic scholarship and learn to speak in the fiercely educated tones that he now employs, it wasn't cheap," Desmond says. "There was sacrifice. You learn what you owe."

J.D. worked, and wonderful things would magically appear, like the latest and most expensive sneakers, fashionable athletic wear, even a car. So when you telephone Desmond's rather ascetically decorated apartment near the Ann Arbor campus and he answers with the bright greeting, "Magic!" he doesn't mean anything frivolous by it. He means work.

"To work at something until it looks easy defines my relationship to the word magic," he says. "It's the one aspect where I deserve the nickname." He adopted it in seventh grade and does not intend to relinquish it, even though it has taken on added significance of late.

Desmond's mother, Hattie Howard-Dawkins, who is now remarried, helped define the relationship as well. Desmond went to live with his father in part so his mother could earn her college degree. She then got a job on the Ohio Hunger Task Force, teaching day-care administrators how to plan meals for children. Before that she ran a day-care center in her home for 17 years. The size of young Desmond's allowance depended on how much he did to help Hattie, reading to the children at story hour, taking them outside to exercise, putting them down for naps. If he seems older than his years, "I think he gets it from me," she says, "because he had responsibilities."

In the midst of Hattie's struggle to go to school, raise Desmond and his three brothers and run a day-care center all at the same time, J.D., who remains on good terms with his ex-wife, suggested that he take Desmond. "Let him come with me," he said. "You go on and finish school. You know my heart is with him." Hattie agreed. J.D. says now, "Without him I'd have been lost. I wouldn't have had a thing." Desmond's childhood friend Warren Morgan says, "It's like they're brothers. Desmond is J.D.'s life."

When Desmond was ready to enter high school, J.D. told him to look around at the various private schools in town and choose which he liked best. One day Desmond saw a basketball team from St. Joseph's enter a gym wearing neatly pressed uniform blazers. "When I saw those blazers, I knew that's where I wanted to go," he says.

So J.D. sent him. One afternoon when Desmond was in the 10th grade, as father and son drove home from football practice along Lakeshore Boulevard, J.D. said, "Desmond, I'd appreciate it if you'd show me how much you love your daddy." Desmond asked if J.D. wanted him to drive. "No," J.D. said, "I want you to give me the next year. Don't go out. No girls. Just do your homework, play football and run track, and I give you my word, I'll give you anything you like for your senior year."

They struck that deal and then another while watching the 1988 Summer Olympics. J.D. told Desmond to pay attention to some of the athletes from smaller countries. He pointed out the ones he thought would win medals someday. "They aren't in the gold yet, but they will be," he said, "because you can tell that when they go home, they will keep practicing. Most athletes go home from practice and sit down to dinner while their mamas pat them on the head. You do a little bit more." A couple of afternoons later, Desmond came home from practice and went for a run. "Now, Desmond, you are working on that edge," J.D. said.

Desmond didn't go to his senior prom, because he had a track meet the next day. He rarely went to the local clubs where most of the neighborhood kids hung out. His social circle was restricted to two best friends, Marcus Greene and Morgan, studious and athletic kids from families not unlike his. Both are now seniors at the University of Cincinnati, Morgan majoring in criminal justice, Greene in psychology. "The only dance he ever went to I conned him into," Greene says. "He wanted to separate himself, just keep out of trouble. He knew there were shootings sometimes. He told me, 'Accidents will happen.' "

By his senior year Desmond, who played tailback and safety at St. Joe's, had 20 major schools recruiting him and a used Plymouth to drive. J.D. gave him the car and whatever else he wanted and didn't mind driving a beat-up Oldsmobile himself. Michigan came after Desmond the hardest. Gary Moeller, now the Wolverine coach, recruited Desmond, whose 4.3 speed overrode any concerns about his 5'9", 167-pound size (he is now 176). Moeller fell hard for him in his final high school game when he returned the opening kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown. "The one thing I liked about him early was he wanted the ball," Moeller says. "He got mad when he didn't have the ball. He loved his hands on the ball."

J.D. sent Desmond off to Michigan with one last cautionary lecture. He told Desmond that no matter how hard things got under then head coach Bo Schembechler, he didn't want to hear about it. "Don't bring Bo home," he said.

Ann Arbor turned out to be colder than expected that first year. Howard was so taken aback by the array of talent at Michigan that during orientation, when the coaches grouped the recruits by position, he went with the defensive backs, thinking he might have a better chance of playing at that position. Moeller found Howard sitting with the safeties and tried him at receiver to see if he could catch at all. "We stood there and said, 'Yeah, he can catch the ball,' " Moeller recalls. "It was just a quick pass, and then, first thing. he made a [tackler] miss." Schembechler didn't know the full extent of what he had, but he had an idea. Asked what he intended to do the next year, after his leading receiver, John Kolesar, graduated, Schembechler said, "I've got this crafty little devil, Desmond Howard."

Howard's success has come partly by the hand of another Wolverine from St. Joe's, junior quarterback Elvis Grbac, the strapping son of Croatian immigrants. Grbac and Howard had no idea that they would become the most decorated and prolific passing tandem in Michigan history, since all Grbac did at St. Joe's was hand off to Howard 30 times a game. Grbac completed exactly one pass to Howard during their high school days. But at Michigan they began developing a relationship that Howard now says is "almost telepathic—I can practically read his mind." The more laconic Grbac says, "It's a mutual friendship that's been growing for several years. There's something about him that just makes you play better. He understands your attitudes and quirks at crunch time. He's got a habit of being there at the right time."

The telepathy between them is, on the surface, unlikely. Grbac's family is from the village of Istra in the northwest part of Yugoslavia, where everything is farmed by hand. Grbac is the type who studies film alone late at night in the players' auditorium. He is reserved and old world. Howard is a bright flame of a personality. Yet their fathers are like-minded men who sit next to each other at Michigan games. When Grbac and Howard combined for what may have been the most memorable college football play in many seasons, both men sensed it coming and dropped their heads in fear. It was a 25-yard desperation pass to the corner of the end zone with 9:02 left and Michigan holding on to a three-point lead against Notre Dame on Sept. 14. With the crowd on its feet, Grbac called an audible, and when he pumped his arm and signaled Howard deep, both fathers sat down at the same time and hid their eyes. "We knew it was going to be a problem," J.D. says. Desmond caught the ball on his fingertips with his body parallel to the ground. The catch secured a 24-14 Michigan win and elevated Howard to the top of the list of Heisman candidates.

Howard finished the regular season with 23 touchdowns, including a Big Ten-record 19 TD receptions. He has made catches of all descriptions, and punt and kickoff returns so picturesque they should hang in art galleries. Even if Howard did not have staggering numbers, he ought to be awarded the Heisman simply for making plays look so pretty.

Howard's style is one part studied nonchalance, one part meticulous technique and one part haughty arrogance. He runs fastidious routes, but sometimes he runs them at less than full speed, reserving a step for the instant he sees the ball leaving Grbac's hand, when he "hits another gear." That was how he managed to outstrip Notre Dame's double coverage to make his scoring catch. "That would be graded out as poor technique but great ability," he says bluntly.

Moeller has told Howard that he is so talented that double coverage is not an acceptable excuse for failing to make a catch. "If you really want the ball, then you can't let two guys take it away from you," Moeller said. Howard hasn't. And when he isn't making circus catches, he is a lethal presence on special teams. Against Ohio State on Nov. 23, Howard ran back a punt 93 yards for a touchdown. It was the longest punt return in Michigan history, and upon completing it, Howard momentarily struck a pose in the end zone, his left leg held high, his arm outstretched, like the figure on the Heisman. He had planned the gesture as a way of "capping off the team's special season." he says. "I love entertaining crowds. I love hearing that silence, then the burst of noise when you make the catch."

Yet during the week, Howard is reluctant even to discuss football. So reluctant, in fact, that he moved off campus last year. First he tried an apartment with roommates, but unwashed dishes and unmade beds made him irritable. So this year he took an apartment alone in Ypsilanti, several miles from campus.

Howard rarely socializes with football players, preferring to surround himself with a small circle of intimates who are not athletes. He will not say who he is dating. "I like my privacy," he says. "I like my time to myself, not to be bothered by people. They don't mean any harm, but if they are always knocking on your door and stopping by, you can't get anything done." He is only 13 hours short of his degree in communications, which he will receive in May. After that he intends to go to graduate school, whether he enters the NFL draft or returns for a final year of eligibility. (He has another year of football left because he did not play a down as a freshman.) "When Desmond said he wanted to live alone, I knew we had a grown man on our hands," says Hattie.

Living alone also allows him to meditate, a habit he picked up from his mother. For 10 or 15 minutes each day, he shuts off the lights and turns on water sounds, and thinks. "It can be about anything," he says. "A big game, or a test."

Howard rarely socializes. He might go to the L.A. Club Cafe sandwich shop near the center of campus, where the proprietor fixes Howard's favorite meal, a grilled chicken sandwich with cheese fries and a strawberry shake. Or he will go to hear the more provocative public speakers who are regularly booked on campus, such as the psychologist Akbar or 1960s radical activist Angela Davis. He has more important things to do than socialize. "I want to destroy stereotypes about the black male athlete," Howard says, "it's a mission of mine to break down stereotypes about our behavior, our social life, our literacy, our academic situations...."

To that end, he has developed a strong interest in the 1960s and social activism. Perhaps his closest friend on campus is Greg Harden, a 42-year-old counselor who is a consultant to the athletic department and who has led Howard on an interesting quest for his identity. At Harden's urging, Howard has explored African-American history and culture, and the result is that Howard's sense of self-worth does not depend entirely on his being an athlete. They met two years ago when Howard called Harden to tell him how much he admired a speech on substance abuse that Harden had given to the football team.

Harden suggested some extracurricular reading, and ever since he told his protègè that "you dress for what you aspire to," Howard has regularly worn a coat and tie and carried a briefcase to class.

Howard and his friends at Cincinnati, Morgan and Greene, share a sense of curiosity about their race and an accompanying sense of responsibility to get their degrees. They exchange books and pamphlets in the mail, exploring the position and plight of the educated young black in America.

Howard has tried his hand at speaking and apparently has a gift for it. He has made a dozen visits to the nearby Maxey Boys Training School, a youth home, where his reception is mixed. "You play football?" some of the offenders have asked incredulously of the slight figure before them. "I play football," he affirms. His performance thrills Harden. "Some athletes have been a disappointment in not figuring out that they have access to power and getting chewed up by it instead," he says. "Desmond could be worth his weight in gold to the black community in showing blacks new ways to see themselves. He's trying very hard to do it right."

Perhaps too hard at times. Howard can display personal standards that border on priggishness. He is intolerant of others' mistakes and of people who do not live up to his high expectations. "I like reliable people," he says adamantly. He admits to fussing with his former roommates over housekeeping. "I think you have a responsibility." he says. "There's no sense in trying to go out and straighten up the neighborhood if your own home isn't straight." With Howard, says Harden, "mediocrity is not an option."

But just when Howard seems a touch overbearing, a beauteous smile comes forth, and he's suddenly describing, with a sense of high hilarity, something he did on the football field. For all of his exalted aspirations, Howard has a touch of pure lowbrow vaudeville. "I've enjoyed entertaining crowds since I was young," he says. "It's a pleasure making everybody happy. My family comes to the games, and I feel like they are there in harmony, cheering for their son."

His parents meet every weekend in seats on the 50-yard line to regard with a mixture of awe and admiration what they have accomplished.

"I tell Desmond," J.D. Howard says, " 'You make this whole family feel good. Just the idea of you.' "

PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERThree Howard TD gems (left to right): the clincher against Notre Dame; the first of two against Florida State; his second at Michigan State. PHOTOJOHN BIEVER[See caption above.] PHOTOBRIAN MASCK/ALLSPORT USA[See caption above.] PHOTOBRIANMASCKAfter burning the Buckeyes with a 93-yard punt return, Howard struck a telling pose. TWO PHOTOSBRAD TRENT/OUTLINEHoward showed his lighter side while clowning around with Grbac (in glasses) before class and with J.D. while home for Thanksgiving. PHOTOBRAD TRENT/OUTLINEHoward meditates every day to focus his mind on matters ranging from football to finals.

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